ST. PAUL (AP) -- Most of the old boats at the Great River Boat Works would be regarded as derelicts now: tired, old, worn out and used up almost beyond rescue.
These old vessels are in their 40s now, their 50s and some in their 60s, and time and weather have taken a dreadful toll on their once-sleek shapes.
The Chris Craft over there, for instance, was the Deluxe model when it made its debut in 1946. The steering wheel, like all of the Deluxes, came from a 1939 Chevy, and it is still intact. The Wheeler up on blocks in another row is a 42-foot ocean boat that was built in Brooklyn. It has soft chines, meaning there is no sharp hull break from its sides across the bottom to the keel.
"She looks like a Greyhound bus," says owner Rob Myhre, still in awe of the boat's classic lines -- even though he sees it every day.
Rob walks among the old wooden treasures in the company yard and talks about them as living things. The Deluxe is in one piece and put together so painstakingly that the slots in all of its stainless steel screws point in the same direction. But all the wood is so badly dried and deteriorated that it would be taken apart, board by board, and used as a pattern boat. For $1,000, someone can take it away.
Rob's boat works is so full that he has had to dismantle a couple of old wooden boats because restoring them would not have made economic sense.
"Marinas don't do restorations anymore, so many of the boats we have here are marina derelicts," he says. "There aren't many wooden boat restorers left, period, because people today are losing interest in wooden boats."
Young people today who are in the market for luxury boats have no memories of wooden boats of the 1940s and '50s, "because they didn't grow up with them like my generation did," says Rob, who is 53. They find it much easier and more convenient to buy a new fiberglass boat than to commit themselves to restoring a classic wooden boat.
"If you wanted to borrow $75,000 for a restored boat, you'd need a lot of collateral. It's just much easier to finance a new boat. That really hurts our business."
But that hasn't stopped Rob and his associates from plugging away at the restoration business. He has, in fact, all the business he can handle, restoring an average of 12 boats a year in his small boat works and marine art gallery.
"We don't begin a restoration until we have a commitment to buy the boat," Myhre said. Since 1985, his Great River Boat Works has been located on Water Street near the main entryway to Harriet Island.
On a recent visit, the boat restorers were finishing up a $55,000 total rebuild of a 30-foot 1960 Owens cabin cruiser with a double-planked bottom "that is built like a battleship."
In another bay of the boat shop, subcontractor Jack Schwartz is restoring a sleek 21-foot Century Coronado open runabout. A major part of the job is to replace a vinyl deck with a solid mahogany deck.
But perhaps the most historic boat of the 25 in Rob's yard has no good prospects for restoration. That one is the 38-foot Dingle sedan launch that was originally built in 1938 at the Joseph Dingle Boat Works on St. Paul's West Side.
The Dingle Boat Works dates to 1880 when Joseph Dingle arrived here from England and began making wooden boats on the banks of the Mississippi River near the site of what is now the Downtown Airport.
Several of his sons joined him, and the boats work flourished until Joseph's death in 1938. Ten years later, famed river man Gordy Miller bought the boat company and operated it until the severe floods of 1950 and 1951 destroyed the boat yard and docks.
One of the boats made by Dingle was a 120-foot river cruiser, the "North Star," built for the Mayo brothers in 1918. Its cost then was $150,000.
The sedan cruiser at Great River Boat Works is almost a one-of-a-kind, and was in the water up until five years ago. It has a spacious wheelhouse and galley and an aft compartment fitted with a large bed. Rob estimates restoration would cost about $80,000, but he would sell it as-is for $8,500.
One fiberglass boat owner who is going to wood is John Lundeen of Woodbury. He has had several glass boats, but is restoring a 50-foot 1964 Chris Craft "because I like the classic lines, and I understand they handle better than glass houseboats."
John plans to keep his boat on the St. Croix River and actually live on it when it is completed next year.
"This boat yard is great," he says. "The trade is disappearing, and you just can't find anyone to work on these classic wooden boats anymore."
Great River Boat Works also has a maritime art gallery with 200 original and limited-edition prints, all marine in nature and ranging from tall ships under full sail to paddlewheelers and schooners.
Myhre learned his trade working on his own boats when he was still laboring in marketing, advertising and public relations.
"I went from suits to blue jeans in 1985," he said, "and I am never going back."
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